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State faculty union leaders take a step toward a possible strike

Faculty in the 14-university Pennsylvania state system will vote next month on whether to authorize a strike, their union announced Thursday.

Faculty in the 14-university Pennsylvania state system will vote next month on whether to authorize a strike, their union announced Thursday.

Faculty will vote on the 14 campuses from Sept. 7 to 9, the union said. Members of the coaches bargaining unit will vote a week later.

The union and administration remain at odds over health care, salary increases, and other issues after nearly two years of negotiations. The previous pact expired June 30, 2015.

Classes are scheduled to begin Monday, and the administration sent a message to the system's 105,000 students this week assuring them that will happen.

"We want to be sure our students know that no matter what they might hear to the contrary, classes will begin on Monday," Kenn Marshall, spokesman for the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education, said. "We would hope the [union] leadership understands, as we do, the devastating impact a strike would have on students and their futures, as well as on the universities."

The union represents more than 6,000 faculty and coaches at West Chester, Cheyney, Bloomsburg, Kutztown, East Stroudsburg, Slippery Rock, Shippensburg, Mansfield, Edinboro, Indiana, California, Clarion, Millersville, and Lock Haven Universities.

A strike would be the first in the system's history. Strike authorization votes are typical during negotiations. But union leaders have said that this time they will set a strike date shortly after the vote is taken. They also have said they will not allow the semester to end without a new contract.

The union's delegates agreed unanimously to hold the vote during a conference call Thursday, just before beginning a two-day negotiation session with the administration.

"Our faculty and coaches clearly feel that the state system has not negotiated fairly; they are more interested in playing games than negotiating seriously," said Kenneth M. Mash, president of the Association of Pennsylvania State College and University Faculty union.

The sides have agreed on minor issues since June, said Mash, a political science professor at East Stroudsburg.

Late Thursday afternoon, the system announced that it had offered faculty cash payments of $600 this year and raises in the next two in exchange for givebacks in health insurance and an increase in the teaching load for temporary faculty. The raise would amount to 1 percent in January 2018 and 1 percent in January 2019, plus a step increase on the salary schedule equivalent to 2.5 percent to 5 percent, Marshall said.

The starting salary for a full-time instructor is $46,609, with the top of scale at $112,238 for an experienced full professor.

The system has seen an overall enrollment drop of more than 14,000 students since 2010. This fiscal year, the system anticipates a $10 million deficit even before any salary increases or new benefit costs would be added for faculty, Marshall said.

The average cost of tuition, fees, and room and board at state system universities for 2016-17 is about $21,000.

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